The Cathay Pacific Douglas DC-4 shootdown happened on 23 July 1954, when a Cathay Pacific Airways C-54 Skymaster airliner was shot down by fighter planes of the People's Republic of China. The event occurred off the coast of Hainan Island, where the plane was en route from Bangkok to Hong Kong, killing 10 of 19 passengers and crew on board.
Although the four-engined propeller-driven Douglas (registered VR-HEU) was a C-54 Skymaster, the incident is known as "the DC-4 shootdown" because the C-54 is the military version of the Douglas DC-4, and the aircraft was flying a commercial passenger run. The crew of six was headed by British captain Phil Blown, and included three female flight attendants. In all, one flight crew member, two cabin crew members and seven of the thirteen passengers were killed in the attack and subsequent crash of the airliner.
The aircraft, registered VR-HEU was a four-engined propeller-driven Douglas C-54A Skymaster airliner, the military version of the Douglas DC-4 converted for civilian use.
VR-HEU had been manufactured by the Douglas Aircraft Company with construction number 10310 and was delivered to the USAAF on 16 May 1944, where it served for less than two years. It was bought on 19 February 1946 by KLM and first operated by KLM West Indies before returning to KLM main line in February 1948. It was sold to Cathay Pacific in August 1949.
On 22 July 1954, VR-HEU took off from Bangkok at 2019 GMT after being delayed in Bangkok for an hour because of mechanical problems on its No. 2 engine. The flight was bound for Hong Kong. A previous flight had taken the plane from Singapore. For the next 4 hours and 25 minutes the routine flight proceeded as planned.
At 2340 GMT, when the DC-4 was cruising at 9,000 ft and roughly 10 miles east of the international air corridor line off Hainan Island and only 31 minutes from Hong Kong, two Lavochkin La-11 fighters (of the 85th Fighter Regiment, People's Liberation Army Air Force), appeared behind VR-HEU, one above it on the DC-4's starboard rear side and the other on its port side. At approximately 2344 GMT, the fighters opened fire and the two outboard engines (Engine numbers 1 & 4) were hit and caught fire. The No. 4 engine's auxiliary and main fuel tank were also ablaze.
While captain Phil Blown took evasive actions to avoid further damage, co-pilot Cedric Carlton issued blankets to passengers instructing them to place them on the back of their seats for protection against the bullets. Radio operator Stephen Wong made a first distress call at 0845 HKT (2345 GMT). "Kai Tak Tower, Cathay XXX, Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! No. 1 port engine on fire, losing altitude, requesting all possible assistance." Wong made 10 Mayday calls before VR-HEU ditched. Cathay Pacific engineer G. H. Cattanach, travelling as a passenger, tried to make the passengers comfortable when it became known that the plane was going to ditch.
VR-HEU began losing altitude and at 5,000 ft, its rudder control was shot off. Travelling at 350 miles per hour, Blown tried his utmost to evade incendiary bullets coming from the fighters by turning the Skymaster left and right. At 2,000 feet, the right aileron was shot off and the plane began turning right on its own initiative. The captain then countered the increasing turn by shutting down the Nos. 1 and 2 engines and fully opening No. 3. Approximately 2 minutes after the initial attack and unable to carry on a controlled levelled flight, Blown decided to carry out a ditching of his Skymaster in rough open seas that included 15-foot waves and a 25 knots wind.
The starboard wing tip was the first to make impact with the water, severing the right wing between the No. 3 and 4 engines. The impact caused the tail to break off and float off 50 yards from the main wreckage. The main fuselage now floated at an angle of 45 degrees with the rear open fuselage pointing towards the sky.
After the plane ditched into the ocean, the attacking fighters ceased firing at the Skymaster around 1,000 feet before making a turn around the wreckage and headed towards Sanya. While nine passengers and crew were killed by bullets and the subsequent ditching, nine others survived and escaped from the sinking plane. Blown and his co-pilot escaped through a broken starboard sliding window, which had water coming in fast.
With all survivors floating on the water with no life vests, co-pilot Carlton suddenly noticed that a Mrs Thorburn was hanging on to a raft still in its case. Fearing the bright yellow rubber raft might attract the attention of PLAAF fighters, it took Carlton twenty minutes to finally inflate the rubber dinghy and lift all nine passengers in. Once all were on the dinghy, concern remained that the attacking planes might return; some of the dazed, injured passengers, with their clothes in shreds, hid under a plastic sunshade covering the edges of the dinghy. Although Blown and passenger Peter Thacher kept watch, the attacking planes never returned.
An Air Vietnam plane en route to Hong Kong from Hanoi, which had altered its course as a results of the calls, spotted the sinking plane and a dinghy one and a half miles from the Hainan coast. It circled for forty minutes before heading for Hong Kong. Thanks to those calls, the RAF in Hong Kong immediately redirected a Saigon-bound Vickers Valetta military transport and further despatched a Short Sunderland flying boat and an Avro York military transport, as well as two de Havilland Hornet fighters of 80 Squadron, from RAF Kai Tak to the reported position of the C-54. A fully armed French PB4Y-2 Privateer also took off from Tourane (Da Nang), French Indochina (now Vietnam) after intercepting the emergency radio call.
Meanwhile, the civilian-operated Manila rescue control centre in the Philippines, on picking up the SOS call from Wong, alerted the 31st Air Rescue Squadron of the USAF at Clark Air Force Base. Captain Jack T. Woodyard, on first alert duty that day and about to depart on a routine training mission in his Grumman SA-16 Albatross, 51-009, immediately took off. A second Albatross followed Woodyard 35 minutes later.
The Hornets were the first to arrive on the scene, followed by the Valetta, Sunderland, York and the Privateer. While the Hornets carried out a thorough search of the area for survivors, the French Privateer (whose pilot had what sounded like an English Cockney accent!) informed the Albatross, which was fifty miles away, "We have spotted the dinghy with survivors; looks like two of them from here." The British and American planes were not able to communicate with each other as they were on different radio frequencies.
Captain Blown, on seeing the Sunderland arrive, tossed a packet of green sea dye overboard to make the dinghy easier to spot. The Sunderland acknowledged this by setting off a smoke flare but, unable to land in the atrocious conditions, had to circle helplessly for two hours until Woodyard's Albatross finally arrived; this to circled for an hour before landing on the calmer side of Ta-Chow Island, where it taxied towards the dinghy in rough water before pulling all survivors on board and taking off for Hong Kong, escorted by the Sunderland. AAP and Reuters reported at the time that three survivors were picked up by the Sunderland.
The last passenger to be hoisted on board was the badly injured Rita Cheung, who had broken her left leg in two places and had suffered a deep gash on her forehead. She died aboard the rescue aircraft, ten minutes before the plane reached Kai Tak.
Radio operator Stephen Wong was also killed. It is believed his head was impaled on a drift meter during the ditching of the airliner.
There were several hypotheses for the attack, which included:VR-HEU was carrying a Chinese Nationalist ambassador;
The United States Ambassador to Thailand, "Wild Bill" Donovan, former head of the OSS (the forerunner of CIA) was to have travelled on a Civil Air Transport plane that same week.
The official line from Peking was that the Cathay Pacific airliner was mistaken as a Republic of China plane on a mission to raid a military base at Port Yulin on Hainan Island.
On 26 July 1954, during the survivor search operation, two Douglas Skyraiders from the aircraft carriers USS Philippine Sea and Hornet shot down two Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force La-11s off the coast of Hainan Island. It is not known whether they were the same La-11s that shot down VR-HEU.
The shooting down of VR-HEU raised tension between the People's Republic of China and Britain and the US. The British Foreign Office, through its Chargé d'affaires in Peking, Mr Humphrey Trevelyan, delivered Britain's protest to Communist China two days later. The US Secretary of State, Mr John Foster Dulles, issued a sharp statement condemning the attack, saying the United States took the gravest view of the act of further barbarity and that the Chinese Communist regime must be held responsible.
On the political front, the shooting down probably harmed the PRC's chances of admission into the United Nations. Republican Senator H. Alexander Smith interrupted a marathon debate over atomic legislation to read Mr Dulles' statement before calling the situation "critical". Republican Representative Walter Judd, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, expressed the view that the incident was another reason why Communist China must not be admitted to the United Nations.
The People's Republic of China admitted responsibility three days later by apologising and making compensation to Cathay Pacific and the victims.
The two La-11 pilots were rumoured to have been executed by the PR Chinese government.
Blown, who had been in command of VR-HEU at the time it was shot down, was hailed as a hero. He continued flying for Cathay Pacific for a further three to four years after the incident, and then retired to New South Wales, Australia, where he died in a nursing home in September 2009, aged 96. Former Cathay Pacific Director Flight Operations, Nick Rhodes, has commented on the bravery shown by Captain Blown on that day, and commended him for the dedication he had shown to ensuring the survival of his passengers.